The Israeli Knesset is set to elect Israel’s 10th president on Tuesday from a field of five candidates, as a difficult and scandal-laden presidential race to succeed Shimon Peres comes to a close.
The election is conducted by a secret ballot of the 120 Knesset members and the president serves a single, seven-year term. Peres’s tenure ends July 27.
Officially, the presidency is a largely ceremonial office. But Peres, a former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has risen above the post and turned it into a position with international gravitas.
The presidential campaign to succeed him will be remembered for its ugly mudslinging. Candidates have complained about private investigators digging into their personal histories, and two campaigns were derailed by scandals.
“Shimon Peres was an important president due to his special status in capitals around the world and because of the dignity that he restored at home in the aftermath of the Katsav affair,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote Sunday. “Peres’s gravitas added an artificial importance and drama to the question of his successor…we need to realize that the next president isn’t going to be Peres.”
The remaining candidates for the post — after Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer dropped his bid for the position Saturday following allegations of financial impropriety — are former Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner, MK Meir Sheetrit of the Hatnua party, MK Reuven Rivlin of Likud, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dan Shechtman and former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik.
Last month, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom chose not to run for the presidency in the wake of allegations of sexual impropriety; the allegations were not substantiated.
None of the candidates was expected to win an outright majority in the first round of voting, forcing a second round between the two top vote getters.
On Sunday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called an emergency meeting to discuss whether to postpone the elections in light of the recent developments, and ultimately announced that the vote will proceed as planned.
Edelstein faced some pressure to delay the vote from, among others, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The harsh atmosphere that continues to surround the presidential race stirs up dissatisfaction with the process and casts a heavy shadow on the candidates and on the Knesset,” Edelstein said after announcing his decision.
Ben-Eliezer, a former IDF general and defense minister, announced he was withdrawing from the presidential race Saturday afternoon, just three days before the elections and less than 24 hours after police questioned him for nearly five hours, under caution, on suspicion that he illegally received millions of shekels from various sources, using some of the money to purchase his luxury apartment home in Jaffa.
Police were also investigating a separate $350,000 payment from a relative, and alleged improprieties relating to other large sums of money.
Ben-Eliezer wrote on his Facebook page Saturday that he was quitting the race with a “very heavy heart,” criticizing the “slanderous smear campaign” he says was waged against him from the moment he announced his candidacy for the post. He continued to maintain his innocence.
Netanyahu was reported on Saturday to be looking into the possibility of postponing the elections in light of the latest developments. He started putting out feelers to members of his coalition Friday after the allegations against Ben-Eliezer first emerged.
Edelstein suggested Saturday evening that there was a “guiding hand” in a number of emerging scandals surrounding presidential candidates.
The Knesset speaker told Channel 10 it was unlikely that prominent politicians, who have served at the highest levels of government over the last 30 years, would coincidentally be facing a rash of allegations precisely as the presidential race gathered pace.
“It would be naive to think that just in the last three weeks all these troubles befell them,” he said.
Peres is set to end his term just a week shy of his 91st birthday.
He enjoys huge popularity among Israelis, with a Channel 2 television poll finding that nearly two thirds of the public had wanted him to remain in his post.
Peres’ departure from office is likely to switch the presidency’s focus from international affairs to more domestic matters, commentators say.
So far, all the candidates have played the card of “national unity”, pledging to respect the essentially apolitical nature of the role, which was so elegantly avoided by Peres.
Peres’s open engagement with the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often put him on a direct collision course with Netanyahu, and he also spoke out about Israel’s often tense relations with Washington and on the Iranian nuclear threat.
For many, he will be remembered for restoring the reputation of the Israeli presidency, which was badly tarnished by former incumbent Moshe Katsav who was convicted on two counts of rape and other sexual offences.